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Folks, is it gay to prioritize friendships over romantic relationships? People often ask me if I’m dating every friend I have. They find it strange that I can be so intimate and involved and deeply love and cherish my friends the same way someone would a romantic partner — without romantic intention.
But having this level of communication and intimacy in most, if not all, of my relationships is a priority to me.
In a recent “Am I the Asshole” (AITA) post on Reddit, a 45-year-old unmarried woman asked if she was an asshole for prioritizing her relationship with two of her best friends, with whom she also shares property.
The full story? Her married friend was annoyed at the level of commitment the OP held, which was the same level the married friend had with her husband.
Reactions like this reveal how normalized the culture of monogamy has become, specifically in Western and Western-influenced societies. Monogamy has become about finding one person to marry, one person to provide all the affection, prestige, comfort, entertainment, and growth we need — or bust.
But all that pressure, as Mandy Len Catron writes for “The Atlantic,” is a pressure meant for “an entire community to fulfill.”
So here’s my proposal for relieving this pressure: Practice platonic intimacy.
When I created more space for more kinds of intimacy in my life, my world expanded. And as you learn about this type of relationship and prioritize it more in your life, you’ll be amazed to discover how it radically shifts how love is given and received. Like I have.
Platonic intimacy is the foundation of any friendship where everyone is invested in each other’s growth. Lydia Denworth, a science journalist and the author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, defines platonic intimacy as a close friendship with:
- give and take
- trust and loyalty
- a serious investment and nurturing of the relationship
Often, having platonically intimate relationships might involve holding hands, cuddling, and lots of touching, but it’s not inherently sexual. For example, in the Netflix show “Grace and Frankie,” the title characters cuddle — but they also rely on each other to learn and grow as people.
They plan vacations together and prioritize each other through affirmations, support, and sometimes brutal honesty. They don’t need husbands or boyfriends to be satisfied and fulfilled in life. Their friendship is enough.
That’s platonic intimacy in a four-season nutshell.
But you don’t have to be physical to feel a connection, either. Intimacy is not limited to proximity or touch. In fact, many people who identify as asexual, aromantic, or otherwise on the ace spectrum (ultimately, people who have no sexual feelings or desires for physical intercourse or sometimes even touch) often create and maintain intimacy in their relationships without any physical element.
Even if you don’t feel like it’s work, building intimacy is work. Quite literally. You put in labor and intention to actively show interest and learn how the other person wants to be cared for.
Gretchen, an agender person in xer mid-20s, thinks of maintaining friendships as work — work xe is willing to do.
“I do think of it as work because I’m very conscious of my time and energy (mental, emotional, and physical) being finite, and as such I really think about where I’m putting that time and energy,” Gretchen says. For xer, intimacy is a muscle that needs to be stretched.
For you, stretching may require letting your guard down and being emotionally, and potentially physically, vulnerable with someone. It could take learning and relearning someone’s love languages. It will require openly communicating about how you each want to show and receive love and appreciation, even when others have a completely different way of giving or receiving affection.
The best way to discover how you want to express platonic love for each other? Ask. There’s no wrong or right way to be intimate, and your level of expression or intimacy with one person might be totally different from how it shows up with someone else in your life.
Those of us who come from more marginalized or at-risk communities, especially, tend to have much more experience with platonic intimacy and creating chosen or found family. Intimate friendships have historically been central in queer people’s lives, helping them survive during times like the AIDs crisis. In difficult times of my life, I leaned on my chosen family to survive.
Growing up with abusive parents, I sought intimacy, connection, and affirmation outside my blood family. I kept resorting to “friendships” and romantic relationships that weren’t satisfying or equal in give and take at all. I settled because I so badly wanted to feel what was on the big screens.
But I wasn’t being invested in the way I was trying to invest in others, and I ended up feeling alone all the time. It made the world feel ugly — until I met Bet-Zua, my best friend in high school.
Bet-Zua and I lived two blocks away from each other and began spending tons of time together, staying up all night reading, watching movies, talking about life, and cooking together. One day, I was sexually assaulted by a “best friend.” Instead of going to my house, I immediately went to Bet-Zua’s. I didn’t know what her reaction would be when I told her.
Walking into her room, I burst into the ugliest crying fit I can ever remember having. I curled up on her bed, frantic, while she just listened. She made me tea. We put on “National Treasure.” She reminded me it would be OK, she was there for me, and it wasn’t my fault.
This act of intimacy not only made me feel understood and less ashamed but also gave me a model for how to treat people who have since come to me with similarly difficult experiences. Platonic intimacy teaches you to hold space in a gentle, affirming way like that.
Platonic intimacy isn’t just about having strong friendships when you’re single. It’s about maintaining those friendships even if you’re dating or in a long-term relationship, so you have people you can turn to for different emotional needs, says Denworth.
We all have an inherent need for affection, affirmation, and support that’s not totally driven by sex or romance. But I want all the people in my life to know that just because I’m sleeping with someone, that doesn’t make them more worthy of my attention than anyone else.
Defining intimacy only to the far ends of the spectrum will remove more intimacy from our lives, because intimacy, when experienced in variety, enriches our lives.
A 2017 study on bromances — a word that came into the lexicon in the mid-aughts to describe a close relationship between men who really want to make it clear they’re close but there’s “nothing gay here, folks” — showed that an “increasingly intimate, emotive, and trusting nature” encouraged men to emotionally open up.
Participants ultimately said their bromances helped them find emotional stability, improved their ability to share their emotions, and provided social fulfillment and better conflict resolution than their relationships with their girlfriends.
In other words, platonic intimacy gave them a safe space to learn boundary-setting and giving and receiving love in a low-stakes, low-pressure way. It created a space for them to grow.
“Friendships may teach you who you like to bond with and why, and they may also teach you your own emotional weaknesses and, if you are willing, how to strengthen them,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and host of the upcoming “Personology” podcast from iHeart Media.
Lia, a 25-year-old queer person, agrees: “Because I’ve been able to say to my friends that I ‘like X thing’ or ‘don’t like being asked about Y thing,’ it’s allowed me to figure out what I will and won’t tolerate in a romantic relationship, how to identify red flags, and how to compromise without totally losing my sense of self.”
Part of this self also includes physical health.
“There’s a pile of research now [showing how] strong friendships or not having strong friendships has all kinds of physical effects,” says Denworth. “[It affects] your cardiovascular functioning, your immune system [and risk of disease…], your stress responses, sleep quality, mental health.”
A 2011 study on the impact of social support found that people with breast cancer who had intimate friendships were more likely to recover and be eased along in the healing process.
So, when we feel allowed to prioritize all close, intimate relationships in our lives, we improve everything about our lives.
Platonic intimacy is important, ultimately, for our quality of life
Bet-Zua is still one of my best friends today. I go to her with my deepest issues and questions about how to handle life, and she’s continued to shape my identity and my ability to intimately show up for people. Her love is a template for me to learn how to develop more kind, caring friendships, and this practice has made the world feel beautiful, even during the hard times.
It has also made me feel more brave.
Truly intimate friendships are like those nets underneath a tightrope. Life is the tightrope. My friends are the nets, who are there when I test my balance by trying new or difficult things. When I fall, they are who I trust to catch me. And for that, I could never be grateful enough.
Elly is a New York-based writer, journalist, and poet who also loves to host parties for her friends. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here or follow her on Twitter.